The Open House (Print Room at the Coronet, London)

The Open House (Print Room at the Coronet, Notting Hill Gate, London, until February 18th 2018)

A dysfunctional family drama so incongruous it could be an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone plays out in the suitably eccentric setting of the glorious Print Room at the Coronet, and will fill audiences with laughter or loathing. So unpredictable is the play that it would be little surprise were a besuited narrator holding a cigarette to appear and start regaling the audience with stuff about dimensions as vast as space and as timeless as infinity, middle grounds between light and shadow, and warning of happenings lying between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

Falling firmly under the banner of the most absurd absurdist theatre, Will Eno’s constantly enjoyable The Open House is one moment dripping with dark humour and pessimism, then half way through a switch turns it into something astonishingly bright and optimistic. Whether or not it is ultimately a hopeful play is up for debate.

The American writer demands to be noticed (if not necessarily liked) and this piece allows him to take a stand alongside masters of the genre such as Stoppard, Ionesco and Beckett, with an added layer of twisting expectations and challenging the emotions. Plenty of scalding memorable one-liners shock and there are just too many to pick favourites, but all the acerbity and wit is drawn together into a thought-provoking composition.

Director Michael Boyd’s punctilious production, a collaboration with the Theatre Royal, Bath’s Ustinov Studio, couldn’t be cleaner in its attention to detail and in bringing together some terrific performances which lift it from asphyxiating negativity to a moral tale with ageless good-natured warmth.

Tom Piper’s bleak and anaemic set comes to life as acts and words of benevolence uncover colour and goodness and the anonymous, archetypal suburban loveless family sustained by cruelty is erased and replaced by nicer characters who we sincerely hope can make more of the house’s potential. As wallpaper is peeled away there is a glimpse of what might have been for the family ruined by a mess of their own making, although there is a suggestion that even the new positivity is artificial, with magazines showing photos of Argentinian waterfalls scattered on a table to give a better impression.

Any semblance of domestic bliss is shattered within seconds of the opening as an outstanding Greg Hicks insults members of his family who have gathered for a wedding anniversary celebration with mounting levels of malevolent spite. His barbed comments belittle his nearest and dearest – a timid wife rudely implied to be a second-best, a nervous, grieving brother, and two awkward and frustrated children, whose father wishes they had never been born. A third child is mentioned but passed over, as though vilified for having the temerity to escape the tyranny. Just when you think a family member may be starting to fight back, the bully offers another verbal razor slash, opening another festering wound.

The wheelchair-bound grouch is recovering from a stroke, but we suspect that life in the household  has never been easy (just how long have those curtains been closed?); Hicks’ father is a charmless, curmudgeonly cross between Scrooge and W.C.Fields, yet however dislikeable it is hard not to feel sympathy for the venom-filled patriarch as buoyant newcomers bring daylight into his gloom and chip away at his stony demeanour, gradually breaking down his power.

Teresa Banham’s disappointed Mother is a beautifully–played study of a wife imprisoned by a life of bitter taunting and forsaken neglect; this vulnerability is balanced when she reappears as a confident gum-chewing, no nonsense modern  woman. Without giving too much away, each of the five characters exits and returns in a new role, which draws parallels and an often uncomfortable symmetry.

Crispin Letts excels as the quiet mediator of the family, who is subtly reinvented as the prospective house-buyer Brian (or Brain, as others jokingly call him). You wonder why he endures his brother’s jibes, yet there is a sense of this socially impaired family offering more than the shattering loneliness of widowed life.

Lindsey Campbell’s Daughter is the one character who dares to voice the hope that “some day we are not going to be like this anymore” and it is telling that she is the first character to be “liberated.” Ralph Davis as the Son joins her in offering fresh and exciting performances tinged with an air of the sinister as the play develops.

The Open House is a monstrous dystopian vision of domestic nightmare but ultimately not bereft of hope (if you can trust canine intuition) and you can only exit with as much tail-wagging glee as is evident onstage when the 80-minute play comes to an end. If hell is other people, then Paradise begins with a kindly word.

David Guest

Image: Simon Annand

(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub